Bolton 2016?
The hawk seriously considers a presidential campaign.

John Bolton


Robert Costa

For now, Bolton, officially speaking, is a one-man exploratory campaign, but he hopes to hire a small staff in the coming months. A few hires are already on his radar, but he declines to name them. “Bottom line, I’m going to play in 2014 races, testing whether a foreign-policy-focused political organization or candidacy can find a way to shape the national debate,” he says. The PACs don’t have names yet, but Bolton says he’s close to finalizing what he wants to call them, and is planning to do a rollout of sorts “after Labor Day,” in either September or October. “The money aspect, of course, is going to be critical,” he says. “I’m going to find out if there’s money out there to get behind a foreign-policy-focused effort that has the threat of international terrorism at the top of its lists, as well as the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, the ongoing collapse of the Middle East, and the threats from Russia and China.”

Bolton has also grappled with issues beyond foreign policy, and strategized about how he could chart a narrow path to the nomination should his candidacy catch fire. “If I run, I’m going to be talking a lot about foreign policy, but I’m not going to be a single-issue candidate,” he says. “When I was thinking about this last time, I kept hearing from people that a single-issue campaign wouldn’t really work in the current political climate, and I’ve come to agree with that perspective. This fall, when I’m in places like Harrisburg, Penn., or Miami, I’m going to get into the broader problems that face the country and the Republican party.”

“Republicans should be seizing foreign policy, and not become a pale shadow of the Democratic party,” Bolton says. “The Democratic party, under Obama, is weak on foreign policy and national security, unlike it has been in years past. Joe Lieberman has retired, there’s no Scoop Jackson wing in the Senate. Republicans have an opportunity to argue and win back the debate, to put things on the agenda that have fallen away. I firmly believe that if a Republican can do that as a candidate, and make a compelling case in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, well before a general election, then there’s a real opportunity to win.”

Before being tapped for the U.N. post, Bolton was a fixture in the executive branch and at the State Department in Foggy Bottom, serving as under secretary for arms control from 2001 to 2005. During the George H. W. Bush administration, he served as assistant secretary of state, and in the Reagan administration he was an assistant attorney general and an administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I’ve been in the executive branch, I know it,” Bolton says. “The skills a president needs, to run the executive branch, are of a very specific type, and different than the skills you need in the legislature.”

Moving ahead, Bolton is expecting two things: Conservatives who have long cheered him may be turned off by some of his social views, and the national political press will likely be divided between hostility and indifference. “I have the advantage or disadvantage of having never run before, and I speak in longer sentences than you find on Twitter,” he says. “But that’s part of my hypothesis. People are ready for something with more depth.” On domestic issues, he says, he’s a self-proclaimed “libertarian,” which he knows will jar people who think he’s interested in running purely to irk Senator Rand Paul, another likely 2016 candidate and Bolton’s ideological opposite on foreign policy. “My argument is that you can’t protect your liberties at home unless we are protected internationally,” he says. “I think that argument can have currency across the Republican spectrum.”

“I can go to voters and tell them, without reservation, that I’m for limited government, as much as possible, on taxes, on regulations, but on foreign policy, I want to make sure we’re protected,” Bolton explains. “It’d be a mix of being against nanny-ism and libertarianism. On abortion, I’m about the same as Reagan; I’m against it except in the cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. On gay marriage, I support it, at both the state level and the federal level. Gay marriage is something I’ve thought about at length as I’ve looked at my future. I concluded, a couple years ago, that I think it should be permissible and treated the same at both levels.”

Bolton calls himself a Goldwater conservative, for the most part, at heart. (Goldwater, too, was more moderate on social issues later in his career.) He grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, and The Conscience of a Conservative was one of his favorite books during childhood. In 1964, he spent Election Day taking leaflets around the city, encouraging his neighbors to vote for the Arizona conservative. He later went on to intern for Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president. In the early 1970s he earned a bachelor’s degree and law degree from Yale, where, he recalls, he never fit in with the era’s anti-Vietnam protesters.

Bolton stops me when I press him for more information about his younger years. He says he doesn’t mean to be rude, but if he pulls the trigger and runs, he doesn’t want his candidacy to “be about some kind of narrative, which I know all of the reporters like to write.” He’d rather be known as a policy man who eschews biography and pomp. “People keep telling me that I have to ‘tell my story,’ but I’d rather not,” he says. “I don’t feel terribly comfortable doing it, and I don’t think my private life is different from other Americans, so what does it have to do with being qualified to be president? I’m betting people would much rather hear less of that stuff.”